Over 70 percent of American workers are employed in family businesses. Most are non-family members (NFMs) who rarely receive training during onboarding on best practices in communicating with the family members who are in charge.

“We do diversity training, leadership training, product training and skills training,” a VP of Training in a family-owned business said, “but do not train our employees in how to deal with our family culture. What would we tell them?”

How about explaining the unspoken rules and important traditions? Those aren’t usually in the employee manual. However, they can make or break careers in the company.

Family members were trained on these unspoken rules of communication just by living in the family culture and by being “mentored” by parents and older siblings.

“Don’t ever offer a solution before your mother has had a chance to say what she thinks,” was a rule Louisa grew up knowing. “That made it easy for me in the office,” Louisa said, “but even my cousins have trouble not jumping in when it seems as if they were invited to brainstorm. It makes them seem disrespectful, when that wouldn’t be true elsewhere.”

Training employees on relevant aspects of a family culture is as essential in a family-owned business as diversity training is in all businesses. Training programs can never completely level the playing field, but they help keep NFMs in the game.

Who should conduct the training, and who should attend?

It helps for co-facilitators to conduct the training: a family member and an NFM.

“Jose explained why the customs regarding stand-up meetings mattered to his uncle, the founder,” one employee of a family business said, “and Blake, a NFM, shared that it felt weird at first, but gave examples of how well it has worked.”

Family members in the business often benefit from attending training for the NFMs, because they may not even realize that some of the customs seem strange to others. It’s wise for them to get a feeling for what is and isn’t standard operating procedures in other companies.

Here are some tips, gleaned from 40 years of experience working with over 2,000 family-owned businesses.

1. Know the conative or instinct-based MOs of each person you are training, and use methods that meets their needs. There are four universal traits called Action Modes®, which are the source of universal but uniquely used patterns of acting, reacting and interacting.

  • For learners who need Fact Finder details, show data, document sources and use examples from the past.
  • For learners who need Follow Thru systems, provide charts and graphs, use timelines, and follow an outline.
  • For learners who need Quick Start opportunities, offer self-discovery opportunities with options and experiments.
  • For learners who need Implementor tangible experiences, have three-dimensional models and equipment available.

2. Train all employees in the family business not to “send a message” to one FM (family member) by talking to another about a problem or opinion. Give examples of what not to say to a family member, such as, “Please tell your sister that I didn’t appreciate her attitude at the meeting today.”

3. Clarify when to walk away from a discussion between FMs: when it is obviously a personal and not a professional situation (for example, a family member saying, “I hope you don’t intend to wear that dress tonight”).

4. Advise NFMs to stay out of business-related family wars. Warn them not to take sides. Tell them that when they see or hear family members arguing over the budget, it’s a good time to excuse themselves to make an important phone call. Role-play examples, such as hearing a family member say to another family member, “Your suggestion is just about the dumbest thing I ever heard.”

Explain that if they are stuck having to express an opinion when family members disagree, they should begin by carefully summarizing the pros and cons on each side. Let the facts speak for themselves. If there are no facts, they should hold off on sharing their instinctive response until they can do it in a non-combative situation.

5. This tip may seem obvious, but it is one that must be explained in many family businesses. It involves the use of family titles in referring to FMs. Here is a specific guideline you can recommend: Always use first names in the business environment. Don’t ask, “What does your dad want to happen?” Instead, ask, “What does Bob want to have happen?”

Training leaders and employees in family businesses involves unique issues. Make certain you define your role carefully, so participants understand that training is not a time or place for sharing grievances or trying to change a family culture. Keep your sessions focused on constructive tips, and you can improve communication in the organization among and between family members and NFMs.