Your relationship with your boss is perhaps the most important one in your life, outside of family and friends, and everyone has a boss (even founders have boards to report to). You want your boss to be your advocate. You want to earn his or her appreciation. Or, you might just be trying to cope with him or her. Whatever the case, there must be boundaries.
I've learned over a three-decade career what I will and won't give for my one-up, and what I'd never expect from my subordinates. While you owe your boss (and your company) much, like your best effort and integrity, there's a distinct list of things you don't owe. These are the relationship defining moments when you should push back.
1. When 24/7 availability is expected.
This one's hard not to give into if your boss and/or co-workers are always on email. It makes it even harder with the blurring of lines between work and home (including the rise of work from home and remote work) and the increasingly global, different time zone driven world we work in.
But you don't owe your boss constant access. Ever. You don't owe a rapid response to every email. It may require you having tough conversations on the rules of engagement you need to prevent burnout, but few conversations are more important to have with your boss.
2. When you're asked for an explanation for why you need personal time off.
You have work. You have a life. Sometimes the two intersect and you have to do what you must to maintain a balanced whole. Just like your boss does. The truth is, most bosses don't expect you to explain why you need time to do what you must. Far more employees feel the need to explain or justify. Don't.
3. When perfection is implicitly expected.
Much of this is on us. While there are a few overbearing bosses actually expecting this, you don't owe it because it's patently unrealistic. Broadly speaking, your boss isn't expecting perfection but they are expecting you to learn from your mistakes. So stop trying to achieve perfection and beating yourself up when you don't. You don't owe perfection, you owe prevention--of making the same mistake repeatedly.
4. When you find yourself sacrificing your health and well-being to keep up.
You don't owe your boss your health so stop sacrificing it to work those extra hours, to skip those lunches to get more done, or to stay up late to perfect that report. Don't inadvertently give up the most basic right you have--to take care of yourself first.
5. When perpetual agreement is implicitly expected.
Your boss isn't always right and you don't owe it to him or her to always agree or to try to please them. It's OK to disagree and respectfully show that you do and intelligently state why. If anything, you owe your boss your honest opinion, even if it's contradictory. And if you're boss expects you to just fall in line, they should expect your resignation.
6. When admiration and advocacy are implicitly expected.
Your boss doesn't get your admiration just because of his or her position power. Their personal power is what should genuinely trigger your admiration. So stay true to yourself and don't feel compelled to fake liking your boss. Of course, show respect and be collaborative. Just keep it real.
This goes for your advocacy of him or her as well. Bosses need you to be supportive of them because their boss will want to know what you think about them. You don't owe your advocacy and endorsement unless you feel they've earned it.
7. When your loyalty is implicitly expected.
I don't mean it's OK to be a disloyal, toxic backstabber. I mean you don't owe your boss anything in terms of choosing to continue to work for him or her; it's a fair and open market.
I knew too many people from my corporate days that thought smaller about their own career prospects because it was easier to stay put with a boss who had been relatively good to them. But your boss will understand if a better opportunity comes along--you don't owe them, or your company anything other than continued respect. If they care about you, they'll understand you moving on.
8. When your identity rests too much on what your boss thinks of you.
This is when you must push back on yourself. Neither your boss nor your company defines you. When you become dependent on your boss for approval and they come to define too much of who you are, it's a no-win situation. You can never give enough in that scenario--you'll always be trying to live up to someone else's definition of success and expectations versus your own.