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GM’s balancing act—Showing compassion and toughness

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, 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.

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