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GM's balancing act—Showing compassion and toughness

Mary Barra
Paul Warner | Getty Images
Mary Barra

General Motors' new chief executive officer is walking a fine line.

Ever since "Switchgate" morphed from a costly and embarrassing recall into a full-blown scandal, Mary Barra has been on the spot, seeking a balance between empathy and toughness.

On one hand, she has to show compassion for the families of the 12 people killed in defective GM cars.

On the other, she has to convince the public that the automaker will figure out exactly what went wrong, why it happened, and assure them the problems won't be repeated.

(Read more: Toyota's $1.2B fine a warning for GM)

"This is a tricky situation for Mary Barra," said Kaitlin Wowak, a University of Notre Dame business professor who recently won a research award for a study on product recalls. "She doesn't want to come off as a cold-hearted CEO, but she also has to appear sincere."

Aside from delivering a few statements shortly after the recall of 1.6 million vehicles was announced, Barra steered clear of giving interviews. But as the scandal mushroomed into a bigger controversy, the CEO began to show a human touch, conveying she understood the company's responsibility for the tragedy that led to the deaths.

GM recently released a video in which Barra delivered a straight-forward message: "As a member of the GM family and as a mom with a family of my own, this really hits home for me. We have apologized, but that is just one step in the journey to resolve this."

(Read more: This opens up Pandora's Box for GM: Nardelli)

As corporate mea culpas go, it was far from a home run. But it accomplished what GM needed in the worst way—it gave the public a sense that the person in charge knows the company made a major mistake, and changes will be made, Wowak said.

"Mary saying, 'I'm a mom. I know people are hurting' is what they needed to do," she said.

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 @LeBeauCarNews.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.

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