I recently spent a couple of days in New York. It was hot and humid, so I didn’t think twice about being offered a ride in an open bicycle cart from Central Park to my hotel, which was approximately a 15-minute ride. I asked the driver to take the scenic road and enjoyed the last glance of the beautiful park, which added another 35 minutes to my New York experience. “It’s 35 dollars sir’ or at least that is what I have heard. It kind of made sense to me, since a Yellow Cab would have been approximately 30 dollars, I guess. My unknown driver handed me his mobile payment device which accidentally read 350 dollars. As I kindly corrected the driver, he pointed to the tariffs chart on the side of the card, which was clearly printed in huge letters. My short joy ride added up to 350 dollars. 

I’ve been advising boards and senior management for many years, and have experienced pretty complex situations, but this was a situation I was not expecting, nor prepared for. I instantaneously knew I was at fault. I should have been more conscious, observant, and alert. I had a contractual agreement the moment I stepped into that cart, but somehow, as the implications of what I have unwillingly agreed to became clear to me, I felt cheated. Somehow something in me held the cart driver co-accountable for the consequences of that agreement. In no time I was in discussion with my driver, not about the price (which I was ultimately prepared to pay), but about the fairness of what I have unintentionally agreed upon. We quickly got embroiled in a discussion about core values. Is it fair to assume that he could have pointed out to me that 1 minute equals 5 dollars? Do one have a moral responsibility to step in at some point in a process and create a sense of awareness that someone signed up for something (in a business relationship) which he might not fully have understood? Should someone be held accountable if he enters a process without realizing the potential consequences? Surely there is some form of co-responsibility between employees, the supervisory board, and the Board of Directors? What is the role my driver’s boss is playing in our absence during our ordeal? 

As I handed my credit card to pay, Mohammed refused to complete the transaction. See, he is Muslim and he explained to me that he can not accept my money if I felt cheated, even though we had a contract. We were not discussing the facts anymore, but the essence of a moral contract, which is omnipresent in most business interactions or encounters every day. That often intangible, implicit, unwritten, honorable agreement supersedes even the obvious. Let’s call it the contract behind the contract, written by the invisible pen of core values, be it religion, upbringing, family, culture, or national pride.  The misalignment of core values between parties or stakeholders not only divides but often culminates in conflicts and escalations. I ended up paying 80 dollars, which seems a reasonable price for Mohammed and me to arrive at our shared core values.