The best question asked at the GM hearing

General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 18, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In their grilling of General Motors CEO Mary Barra on Capitol Hill Wednesday, lawmakers took turns playing the role of management consultant.

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), chairman of the energy and commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, questioned how much difference it made that GM fired 15 employees implicated in the ignition switch scandal. "If you haven't changed the people, how do you change the culture?"

And Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) criticized the automaker for hiring internal candidates to fill its new safety investigator positions. "I would strongly suggest you look at bringing in some outside fresh blood to run that part of the company," he said.

But perhaps the most insightful question from the lawmakers-turned-leadership-theorists (never mind the irony of that concept) came from Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.). "Ms. Barra," she asked the CEO, "will GM’s bonus program be revised to include an explicit safety component?"

The question came after Castor asked attorney Anton Valukas, who led the GM investigation, about how safety calculated into executives' bonus plans. Valukas stated that it was supposed to be included in such bonuses as part of an overall quality measure, but said he could not answer how it was calculated.

Barra then confirmed "safety is an element" in surveys that form part of the quality metric for managers, but Castor fired back that Valukas couldn't say with certainty how that part of the bonus is calculated. "I will make sure it's explicit," Barra told Castor. "It's a good suggestion."

Castor went on to ask whether safety would be an explicit factor in determining pay for the rest of GM's employees as well, not just management. "If GM is serious about its new focus on safety, there should be stronger incentives in place for executives and all of the other GM employees," she said.

Over and over again, the commentary and questions from lawmakers relayed an underlying tension. They understood that a dysfunctional culture had led to the recall crisis, but seemed dissatisfied that the specific changes announced so far would do the murky work of culture change.

"Today what I want to know are specific answers to how the culture of secrecy at GM can be changed to encourage reporting of problems — not just structural management changes," said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).

Explicitly spelling out that safety is a key factor in how people are paid is one of those specific ideas. Incentive plans carry institutional weight. They change behavior. They are the clearest way to combine the programmatic changes and leadership signals, as the vague phrase goes, that are both needed in order to change a company's culture.

Put simply: Employees do what they are paid to do, particularly if there are big sums of money at stake. One of the best ways for Barra to address the question put to her today by Rep. Murphy — "how does someone who’s spent an entire career at GM change the culture at GM?" — is to take a close look at the incentives that have been in place to motivate both GM executives and employees. And if indeed safety is not explicitly laid out as a metric in the GM compensation plan, it should be.

Read also:

To change a culture, follow the money

How jargon hurt the culture at GM

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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