The Tragedy of the GM Nod

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Leadership and culture can be a matter of life or death. For 11 years the failure of a substandard ignition switch vexed engineers at GM. Now the same switch is being implicated in the deaths of numerous drivers. Although an investigation revealed that a GM engineer was responsible for sourcing a component, which he knew to be substandard, the investigators also said the failure to identify and remedy the switch was caused by GM’s own cultural flaws.

The “GM Salute” and the “GM Nod”

As they worked to understand what led to the faulty switch’s approval and the management’s slow response to it, investigators repeatedly heard interviewees mention the “GM Salute” and the “GM Nod.” Both of these phenomena, it turned out, were something of a common occurrence in meetings at GM. The “GM Salute” meant crossing one’s arms and pointing towards someone further down the conference table, as if to say, “it’s their responsibility, not mine.” Then, at the conclusion of meetings, the members of a committee would nod in acknowledgement of the problem and the solution. But no one actually began executing the plan. This was the “GM Nod.”

Both of these trademark GM moves reveal something crucial. The investigative report puts it best:

The structure within GM was one in which no one was held responsible and no one took responsibility. While people were responsible for being on a committee, no single person bore responsibility or was individually accountable.

Autonomy Run Amuck  

The report also describes the unfortunate and unethical decisions of the engineer most responsible for the switch’s actual implementation:

Along the way, the investigators were misled by the GM engineer who approved the below-specification switch in the first place; he had actually changed the ignition switch to solve the problem in later model years of the Cobalt,but failed to document it, told no one, and claimed to remember nothing about the change.


It turns out that high level engineers at GM actually have a lot of autonomy. Autonomy can be great for employees, but without being tempered by accountability and transparency, it is very dangerous. Operating without transparency or accountability allows an individual to claim every success and hide every failure—a “have your cake and eat it too” kind of situation.

Building a More Responsible Auto Company?

It’s clear that GM has a responsibility problem. But this is, at bottom, a cultural problem. The investigators recommended sweeping changes in the way things are done at GM going forward. They suggested modifying organizational structures, rethinking engineering processes, opening up intergroup communication, enhancing individual accountability, and putting additional emphasis on safety. Now it is up to leadership to execute. Let’s hope that the suggested changes aren’t met with the GM Nod or the GM Salute.

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