In a video released Monday, General Motors chief executive officer Mary Barra offered an apology for two mistakes made by the world’s second largest automaker. One was for a faulty ignition switch put in 1.6 million vehicles that has been linked to a dozen fatalities. The other was perhaps more difficult to admit: GM knew about the deadly defect for nearly a decade.
“Something went wrong,” Ms. Barra said. “And terrible things happened.”
In this new era of easy apologies by companies, politicians, and celebrities that have erred, the new CEO of GM didn’t spend much time expressing remorse for either the harm caused or the coverup (dubbed “Switchgate”). After all, she has been CEO only for a few weeks.
Rather, in a sign of how much the public expects public contrition these days to be tied to action, the GM chief announced steps to fix the company’s bureaucracy. She also promised to enhance the company’s future. “We will be better because of this tragic situation, if we seize the opportunity,” she told GM employees.
One immediate reform that Barra announced: creating a powerful post to oversee product safety. “Deciding and managing recalls is going to change because of this,” she pledged.
Despite the promise of reform and a start to a bumper-to-bumper internal investigation of the firm, GM will still pay mightily for its long delay of an important recall. Consumer lawsuits, government probes, and fines by regulators will eat into both prestige and profits just as the company is emerging from bankruptcy and government stewardship since its near-downfall in 2008-09.
Barra seems braced for a period of necessary suffering. The more willingly GM accepts its various punishments and understands the effects of its mistakes, the sooner its employees will start to operate at a standard of perfection. And as GM becomes more transparent and accountable, its past sins may be seen as ancient history.
The company can look to any number of role models for how to recover.
It can look to its chief competitor, Toyota, which has largely recovered from a massive recall in 2009-10 for vehicles with unintended acceleration. Or it can look to Netflix, which humbly retreated from a recent price increase that it recognized had been imposed with insensitive arrogance on consumers. Or to postwar Germany, whose sincere introspection on its Nazi past has enabled it to act as the moral leader in recent weeks in standing up to Russia’s illegal taking of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Apologies are freeing, not because they relieve guilt but because they open a door to act in ways that prevent a repetition of old misdeeds. Remorse and reform are bound together just like a flat tire and car jack.