But empathy and compassion won't go far if Barra fails to show she is making genuine changes.
"She needs to show documentation of how GM is changing," said Karl Brauer, senior director of insights at Kelley Blue Book. "It's not enough to say, 'Here's what we are doing differently.' Mary Barra needs to show it."
When she wrote an op-ed piece published by USA Today, Barra struck a firm tone that acknowledged the company's responsibility for the problems.
"I love making cars, and I'm proud of the cars we make at GM today. So, when something goes wrong with any of our vehicles, I take it personally. If that happens, our duty is to accept responsibility, fix the problem and make the changes needed to ensure it does not happen again," she wrote.
(Read more: 'Clearly this took too long': GM's Barra on recall)
Hiring outside law firms to investigate the company was a start. So was creating the position of vice president of global vehicle safety, and appointing a veteran GM executive to fill that role.
But Barra's challenge will get tougher on April 1, when she testifies in front of a congressional committee on Capitol Hill about how the automaker handled the recall.
In the end, Barra can talk about all the changes GM is making, but convincing the public that those efforts will pay off in safer cars will be one of the biggest tests during her tenure as CEO.
"GM needs to make sure the new head of vehicle safety gives us some type of an update," Brauer said. "The public wants to know what he's done and give us some evidence GM has changed."
—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter
Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.